Facebook, Twitter sucked into US Senate's Russian meddling probe

Politicians want to know what happened with those fake accounts and advertising dollars

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco

Posted in Policy, 21st September 2017 20:44 GMT

They may still view themselves as open purveyors of free speech, but increasingly social media giants are being pulled into the US Senate's investigation of Russian interference in the American presidential elections.

This week Twitter confirmed that it is going to meet the Senate's intelligence committee that is heading up the probe next week. It is expected to discuss the issues of fake accounts as well as the spread of fake news across its service.

That confirmation followed an appearance by the committee's vice-chair Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) on CNN earlier this week, in which he talked about the committee's investigation and criticized another social media giant – Facebook – saying that he wished the company "would be more transparent and more forthcoming."

Warner has repeatedly spoken to a range of media outlets this week in an effort to ratchet up pressure on the tech companies, which don't want to be seen as purveyors of fake news or unwitting tools of Russian government propaganda.

Earlier this month, Warner also laid into Facebook when the social media giant revealed to Congress that it had received around $100,000 in political advertising from 470 fake accounts connected to Russia – ads that offered "divisive social and political messages." And it found another $50,000 in "politically related" ads from suspicious accounts.

The Russian Facebook ads were just "the tip of the iceberg," Warner warned, when it came to interference efforts.

Backtrack

That pressure appears to be working: on Thursday Facebook announced that it has changed its mind and would now share the details and contents of the 3,000 ads linked to a Russian misinformation campaign.

"This has been a difficult decision," the company said in a blog post. "Disclosing content is not something we do lightly under any circumstances. We are deeply committed to safeguarding user content, regardless of the user's nationality, and ads are user content."

But, it said, in this case the ads were of an "extraordinary nature" and "the questions that have arisen go to the integrity of US elections."

Facebook's post was also accompanied by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg giving a statement in which he promised that the company would help Congress with its investigation, carry out its own investigation, and from now on will require all political ads to disclose where their funding came from.

"We are in a new world," he said. "It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion."

Collusion?

The investigation is not only digging into what Russian agents actually did in their efforts to sway the election away from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and toward Republican candidate Donald Trump. It's also exploring whether they were effectively aided by any Americans – a situation that could come with very serious repercussions, including large fines and jail sentences.

Currently, when it comes to social media, the focus is on two main avenues: the use of fake or bot accounts, and the related advertising of seeming news items that were false and calculated to sway voters' opinions of the candidates.

The automated accounts were used both to post links to fake news and propaganda and to amplify those stories and the accounts posting them by taking advantage of Twitter and Facebook's systems.

In several cases completely false stories, developed and published in Russia, ended up being published in the US media, further strengthening their apparent legitimacy. Some false stories were even promoted as true by candidate Trump's team and Trump himself.

These efforts in turn created a kind of snowball effect, where other services like Google started placing websites and poor sources of information higher up in their rankings, giving them even greater exposure.

The really big question, however, is whether that sophisticated and well-resourced effort was successful because of flaws in the automated systems run by big tech companies, or whether there was an orchestrated effort between political operatives in the United States and others in Russia.

Twitter put out a statement about meeting next week with the Senate committee. It confirmed that it was "cooperating" with it and noted that it "deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies, and will continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our terms of service."

Currently the meetings are being held behind closed doors, but both Facebook and Twitter are expected to be called to testify at a public meeting later this year.

New rules

In addition to that inquiry, lawmakers are calling on the Federal Elections Committee (FEC) to develop new rules and guidelines to "eliminate loopholes" and "prevent illicit foreign campaign spending" in future, particularly with the 2018 mid-term elections coming up.

A letter [PDF] sent from 20 Democratic senators to the head of the FEC specifically referenced the social media ads and fake accounts as justification for why new rules were needed. ®

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